Knox County voting enters the 21st Century


Part I

by Norm Winick

Thanks to a grant from the federal government, distributed by the State of Illinois, Knox County voters will be using state-of-the-art optical scan voting machines when they go to the polls on Tuesday. No longer will hanging chads or defective punches be an issue when a close election needs to be recounted.

The machines Knox County Clerk Scott Erickson selected are similar to the ones Galesburg voters have been using for several years. Voters get a ballot on card stock and fill in an oval next to the name of their desired candidate. Contests and candidates are printed on both sides and the machine, The Diebold "Accu-Vote" counts the ballot as it is inserted into the ballot box. If a voter casts a totally blank ballot or overvotes any race, it is retuned to the voter who can decide to cast it anyway or fill out a new one.

Votes are tallied on a memory card in each machine as they are cast. When the polls close, the machine and the memory card are brought to the courthouse where another machine reads the totals into the main computer.

Each machine costs $5,625 and the federal grant provided $3,192.22 per precinct. The county didn’t have to make up all the $2,433 difference per precinct though. Erickson purchased 26 machines for the 30 precincts and several will be combined to share a machine. Two additional machines were purchased as a backup. Erickson’s opponent, Steve Buck, has argued that more precincts could have been combined to save even more money. Erickson says that the State only allows up to four precincts per machine and that he didn’t want to inconvenience voters any more than necessary.

Erickson looked at various systems and selected an optical scan one because it’s the only kind that the State of Illinois has approved at this point. The State Board of Elections is withholding approval of any Touch-screen systems until they can successfully generate a paper trail so that a recount could be performed. The actual ballot cards are the paper trail in an optical scan system and they must be saved for two years after a general election. Buck says he would have chosen the same system. Erickson send out two bid packets to competing firms but only Fidlar Election Company, the distributor of the Diebold equipment, returned a bid. He was disappointed there were no competitive bids but was comfortable with Fidlar, the company that has provided the equipment and software for county elections for over 30 years.

Other advantages of this system are that voting booths are now generic. Any ballot style can be voted at any location in the polling place. With the punch card "votamatics", each machine had the ballot pages for only one ballot style. That should help things move faster and be less confusing. Erickson says that tests have shown that voters can vote one of the new ballots faster than they could punch a card. That should also help ease congestion at the polls.

Compared to the touch-screen systems, voters in Galesburg and Knox County will be able to cast their ballots even if the power goes out in an isolated precinct. According to Gary Ingleson of Fidlar, "The machines have a back-up battery and even if that gets drained, election judges can run the ballots through when the power comes back on. The memory card holds the totals with or without power. On some of the touch-screen devices, if the power goes out, the machine is out of commission for the rest of the day."

While the punch-card "votamatics" served their purpose in Knox County for over 30 years, Ingleson says the new machines should last at least ten years – and hopefully more. "Technology is really advancing rapidly in the industry."

Equipment may be the least of the problems voters encounter nationwide. Challenges to voters’ residency, their criminal status, long lines and power outtages may take their toll. There are provisions for voters with different problems and both parties have dispatched thousands of lawyers across the nation to address them.

A suspended voter (one who hasn’t voted in four years or moved within 30 days to a new precinct in the same jurisdiction) is only allowed to vote a federal-only ballot. A voter who isn’t on the rolls but thinks he should be will be allowed to cast a "provisional" ballot. It is kept separate and election officials will determine later if it should be counted. The voter has 48 hours to present evidence to support his case. Military personnel get full ballots and do not need to be registered. Felons, in Illinois, can vote as soon as they are released – but not in all states .

In Illinois, you are not required to show your voter card but must be able to present some identification with your name and address if requested. The one recent Illinois election law change was clarifying the campaign-free zone around a polling place. Politicking is not allowed within 100 feet of the room the voting is in. Previously it was unclear as to whether the clear zone was from the room, the building entrance or the property line. It took years to address that controversy and others that arise Tuesday could take a while to resolve as well.

Part II

By Mike Kroll

After the Novermber 2000 presidential election much was made of the deficiencies huge degree of variation of the American election process. While most of the criticism focused on the punch-card voting systems once widely used across the US (including Galesburg and Knox County prior to adoption of the optical scan systems) the real problems were much more complicated. As we now know it wasn't just problems in the voting booth or counting the ballots cast that led to much embarrassment four years ago, it was a system that was anything but systematic or standardized that did not hold up under close scrutiny. The fact was none of these problems were new, they just hadn't attracted nationwide attention before the Florida fracas.

Today we are days away from another presidential election and people on all sides of the political spectrum remain concerned about the continuing weaknesses in the election system. True to form in America one key change has been implemented nearly everywhere, those inscrutable punch-card voting systems have nearly all been relegated to their place in history and museums. America has once again turned to technology for a solution however multiple new systems have emerged as opposed to a single uniform standard and new questions and doubts already surround at least some of the new systems.

In our state the "high tech" alternative to those older systems isn't bleeding edge nor even really new. Optical scan voting systems have been around for a number of election cycles and have demonstrated themselves to be fairly robust and reliable. The City of Galesburg Election commission has used them for years with few problems and no suspicion of hanky-panky. The controversial systems that have generated most of the concern are touch-screen voting systems that are totally digital.

Whereas the optical scan systems speed up counting the vote and permit checks against unintentionally spoiled ballots they still amount to essentially a paper ballot system with the resultant paper trail that is manually recountable. The lack of such a paper trail is the biggest concern with the touch-screen voting systems. On these systems the voter is presented with a computer screen showing the candidates for each office and physically touches the screen to make a choice. That choice is then recorded in the computer's memory eliminating the need for paper as the system was originally conceived.

Next Tuesday election districts in 42 states are planning to use variations on this touch-screen system. Estimates are that 50 voters or roughly a third of the nationwide electorate will use touch screen voting systems next Tuesday. In many cases this pivotal election will be the inaugural use of this technology for election authorities forced to change systems by the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) that parceled out nearly $4 billion Federal dollars to modernize the election process.

Ever since these systems were widely presented as alternatives they have faced frequently harsh criticism from a variety of quarters. A substantial group of people in the computer industry has not only questioned the physical security of such systems, they have explicitly demonstrated just how susceptible they can be to fraudulent manipulation. Many public test and demonstrations have shown these systems to be prone to reliability problems as well. Perhaps most disturbing to nearly all of the critics of such systems is that as originally designed they do not offer any real opportunity for independent recount. Without a paper trail you are left with the choice to either accept the vote count or throw it out but you cannot really audit the system.

The official name for these systems is Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) and the biggest supplier is Diebold Election Systems. While HAVA mandates that "a manual auditing capability" be available in all electronic voting systems there appears to be much room for interpretation of just what is required. Diebold contends that a paper trail is not only unnecessary but counterproductive to the efficient use of their systems. They say on their product literature and website that the electronic records of every ballot coupled with a summary printout is sufficient to meet the auditing requirement.

"When a voter casts their ballot using the Diebold touch screen system, the ballot selections are immediately encrypted and stored in multiple locations within the voting station. When stored, the order of cast ballots is scrambled to further insure ballot anonymity. The image of each and every ballot cast on the voting station is captured, and can be anonymously reproduced on standard paper should a hard copy of ballots be required for recount purposes. Once voting concludes at a precinct, a printed election results report is printed as a permanent record of all activity at each voting station. This printed record is used to audit the electronic tabulation of votes conducted during the election canvas process, when final, official election results are reported."

Diebold's critics have not been satisfied by this assurance. One such group, Verified Voting Foundation has collected evidence of on-going problems with DRE systems now in use in states permitting early voting. "Our primary concern is the threat that unverifiable electronic voting poses to elections in the United States. We have been concerned that without a paper record verified by the voter, there would be no way of knowing whether votes were recorded accurately and no way to do a meaningful recount if one is necessary. A voter verifiable paper trail is nothing more or less than a permanent paper record of the vote that the voter can check for accuracy (by some trustworthy method, such as visual inspection) before the vote is cast. The record must be deposited in a secure ballot box for use in a manual recount or audit. This definition is quite broad, and encompasses 'plain old paper ballots' that are manually marked and counted, central and precinct-based optical scan ballots that are hand-marked but read by computers, and printers on a touch-screen or other computerized input device.

At this time, the Verified Voting Foundation recommends precinct-based optical scan technology. It is widely used and proven in practice and studies have shown these systems to have lower residual vote rates (votes for too few or too many candidates) than e-voting machines."

But other types of problems have also arisen with DREs related to their novelty for many voters. For example, if voters rest their hands or thumbs on or near the edge of the touch screen, then the voting machine can register a selection where none was intended. Interestingly, another common problem with these systems is that they seemingly take much longer per voter and are creating delays at polling places. Polling workers have reported that voter counts do not always match the number of ballots reported cast by the machines and that delays caused by machine malfunctions have led to disgusted voters leaving without casting their votes.

If Tuesday's results are close enough to be in dispute it is very likely that some of the blame will be leveled against the very machines so much money has been spent to purchase following the 2000 debacle.